There is nothing quite like experiencing a band for the first time. Never hearing a song, never reading a review, never even hearing an opinion. There are no expectations or preconceptions to cloud your opinion, and as a music fan you can be open for whatever the night has in store. I had the pleasure of experiencing two bands for the first time, Railroad Earth and Zuvuya, at Portland’s Mt. Tabor Theatre and Pub on September 7th.
Railroad Earth, who has only been together since 2001, has already stirred national interest with their impressive live performances. Zuvuya is a new side project led by String Cheese Incident drummer/percussionist Michael Travis, and guitarist Xander Greene, who would be joined on this evening by Portland resident Tye North, previously of Leftover Salmon and Commotion fame on bass. This double shot of talent would take the Portland faithful on a fun musical ride late into the night.
Zuvuya took the stage first with Travis and Xander playing a duet. Zuvuya is a Mayan term for the universal wave of energy that encompasses all that surrounds us, and their floating rhythms and beautiful melodies kept true to this other worldly concept. Their musical connection was immediately obvious, as they weaved through and around different musical themes, always with a heavy focus on improvisation. They played about two songs as a duo, all instrumental, but soon brought Tye North on stage. On this tour Zuvuya has shared the stage with other guests including Jamie Janover, but tonight the backbone created by the thumping bass of Tye North turned this duo into a formidable power trio. As a trio these musicians connected in ways that allowed room for the musicians to both have the ability to play songs that were soft and subtle with enchanting melodies, and the ferocity to lay down a deep funky groove and be able to drive it home.
Travis and Tye formed a brilliant rhythm section. Travis has the invaluable ability to play both a standard drum kit and percussion simultaneously, almost to the point that he can have a jam session all by himself, and Tye has a great ear for music and the equally invaluable ability to quickly understand a new song’s direction, and then play incredible bass runs that can drive the music into eargasmic levels. Xander painted melodic images on his acoustic guitar that complimented and rode over the rhythm laid down by both Travis and Tye. The trio’s union was especially impressive, since Tye had only played one song with Zuvuya before, and that was during sound check. Of minor note to SCI fans would be Travis’s new streamlined look, since he shaved off his trademark long locks, for a cleaner sharper look. But fashion news aside, we were obviously here for the music. Zuvuya’s songs seem to have an international flair, and tapped into a variety of influences; from African rhythms, Mediterranean melodies and Latin American beats as well as American jazz and simply pure rock and roll, just to name a few of their musical flavors. I only wish they would have had more time to play, but the night was just getting started and Railroad Earth was about to set up shop.
Railroad Earth headlined and took the stage, and the crowd by storm. Their music is hard to pigeonhole since they combine aspects of so many musical genres. To simply call them a bluegrass band is to miss the complexity of the jams that stretch into realms of jazz, blues, rock and psychedelica. For an acoustic band their sound is incredibly rich and layered, and their songs are catchy and well written. Todd Shaeffer handles most of the lead vocal work, as well as a mean acoustic guitar. Tim Carbon, who plays the violin, has a dominant stage presence, and is very expressive, both physically and musically, when he takes a solo. Andy Goessling is the proverbial "Jack of all trades" for Railroad Earth, as he easily rotated from an acoustic guitar, to a banjo, mandolin, flute and back without any hesitation. His musical flexibility gave each song a unique feel, and made my first Railroad Earth experience all the more enjoyable. Jim Skehan handles most of the mandolin duties, and adds great texture to most of RRE’s musical excursions, as well as fast fluttery solos up and down his mandolin’s fret board. RRE’s rhythm section is very solid, and is comprised of Corey Harmon on drums and percussion, and Dave Von Dollen on upright bass. The true beauty of RRE, is not the individual performances of these musicians, but the musical collage that their collective sound makes.
Portland was up and dancing throughout the night, as both Zuvuya and Railroad Earth had made a major impression on all the lucky individuals at the Mt. Tabor Pub. I’m sure both band were successful in creating a new fan base here in Portland, because I can honestly say I have found two bands that I cannot wait to see again!
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